The Church Universal and Specific

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper


There are many things that appear to us to be true, but yet are not true. For example, it appears to us that the sun rises, yet we know that it is actually an appearance caused by the rotation of the earth. It appears, when we read the Old Testament, that Jehovah was frequently angry with the children of Israel, and punished them harshly, yet we know that He did not act from anger, but from zeal, the zeal of a loving, Heavenly Father for His disobedient children. It sometimes appears to us that the church is our own, and that we should govern it, when the truth is that the church is from the Lord, and He alone must govern the church by means of the Word.

Because the external forms of the church are man-made, even though drawn from the Word, unless we turn our minds to the subject from time to time, we can begin to believe the appearance that the church is ours, forgetting that the church is the Lord s alone. It is for that reason that we turn our attention to what the Word teaches about the church, its origin, its form, and its purpose.

The church is like a person, in that the church, too, has as-if-from-self life. By this is meant that the church and the person of the church are similar because they both appear to live of themselves, yet they both receive their life from the Lord. The Lord s universal church is made up of all the people in the world who try to live according to what they believe to be true.

Although the life of the church is from the Lord, its earthly manifestation is according to the enlightenment and understanding of the people who make up the church at any given time. In other words, it is the responsibility of each of us who wish to be a part of the church to work as hard as we can to see that the forms and actions of the church on earth actually reflect the truths that the Lord teaches in His Word. The only way to approach this, let alone assure it, is to constantly refer back to what the Word itself teaches.

The Lord s church is universal, and includes all those in every nation of the world, and in the spiritual world, who seek to do the Lord s will. (See Heaven and Hell 328) This doctrine of the New Church is unusual. Unlike most other churches The New Church does not state or imply that membership in this particular organization has anything to do with anyone s eternal salvation. The doctrines of the New Church clearly teach that nationality, race, and membership in a particular church organization have little bearing on anyone s eternal life. All people who do what they believe to be right in the eyes of their God, no matter how they conceive of him, will be saved! How else could a loving, heavenly Father respond to a person s efforts?

Many have wondered about the spiritual lives of those people who have never had the benefit of hearing the Word preached because they were physically isolated from it. Some churches have taken the view that all those who are not members of their particular denomination will go to hell, and so those churches have taken on extremely active programs of evangelization so that the "heathen" or "gentiles" can be baptized and thus be "saved" whether or not they wish to be. History tells us that such irrational doctrines have been taken to such extremes that aboriginal peoples have been baptized by force and then executed in the mistaken belief that this was being done for the sake of their spiritual lives.

But the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Jerusalem tell us that gentiles who are remote from the Word through no fault of their own are still able to use their rational faculty to deduce many important truths by simply observing the world around them, and being receptive to the perception that is given to every one from the Lord. Such people can deduce that there is one God, that He is the Creator of the universe; that He continually guards His creation and is the preserver of all things; that all things that are good and true are from Him and not from ourselves; and finally that if a person tries to guide his life according to these truths that he will be blessed. (See Arcana Coelestia 3263)

Please note that nothing has been said about Baptism, the Holy Supper, Conjugial Love, or the Doctrine of the Spiritual World. The simple understanding that there is a Creator God, who continues to give blessings to those people who work with Him is sufficient to bring a person into eternal blessedness and salvation provided he lives according to this simple faith. These people are in the church universal.

But there are many other people in the world who are in the Lord s universal church who happen to think that they belong to a particular denomination. Many of us have had the experience of talking to someone who belonged to another church organization, and finding that the person agreed with many of the ideas that we associate with the New Church because they made sense to him, or fit into what he already believed. But how many times has it happened that an acquaintance has listened to your careful doctrinal presentation and said, "Oh, that s just what our church teaches!" And nine times out of ten, we will be horrified at such an idea and bombard our poor friend with many passages from the Writings to prove that our beliefs are quite different from his.

But if we will stop and think about it for a moment, we will see that when our friend says, "that is what my church teaches" it is his way of saying, "I agree with you." Or sometimes a friend will come back and say that "Your Swedenborg borrowed a lot from"& Luther, or Calvin, or the Catholics, or whomever. At such times we must not take offense and explain at great length that "Swedenborg received these teachings from the Lord alone, and certainly not from someone like that heretic who started your church!" We need to understand that what that person is really saying is something along the lines of, "I belong to this particular church, and I agree with many of the ideas I ve been hearing from Swedenborg, so they must have come from my church." Such people as in these two examples, no matter what earthly organization they have allegiance to, are actually members of the Lord s spiritual church, if they live according to the truths they have discovered through their own rational light.

We must remember that people outside of the New Church are also gifted with remains. They love their customs, pastor, church building, and grounds just as much as we do and so may choose to remain in their church in spite of the fact that they don t really understand or agree with the doctrine it teaches. They stay with their church for the same reason we stay in ours because that is where they feel comfortable and at home.

There are many many passages in the Heavenly Doctrines that speak harshly of the Jewish Church, and many others that speak of the Christian Churches as being "dead." How can we resolve this apparent contradiction, the fact that it appears that on the one hand the Writings are extremely open and accepting towards people of other churches, and on the other hand the Writings call their religion "dead" .This is easily resolved. On the one hand the doctrines are referring to people, and it is clear that the Lord wants everyone to be with Him in Heaven, if that is what they themselves want. On the other hand, the Writings condemn the doctrine of the other churches. It is the doctrine that is dead, not the individual people who are members of that church.

The New Church tends to be a doctrinal church, perhaps much more so than most. As a group, we tend to have a greater concern about matters of doctrine, and because our church has faced three major fights and divisions based on interpretation of the doctrine in the past 100 years, we tend to be pretty careful about holding to our church s doctrinal position. This is not the case with other churches. It is not uncommon to discover in conversation that the members of a given denomination or sect do not fully subscribe to or even know what their church teaches on a particular subject! Nor is it uncommon to find that a doctrine is "on the books," so to speak, but not taught by its ministers or held in belief by its members. This may be because the Lord is constantly leading all people to His church by helping them "filter" out the falsities of their church s doctrine, so they never even hear them and so are neither confused nor misled by them and may use their God-given rational light to sort through their church s doctrines to find a system that feels right, that makes sense to them. We should search for those things that we all believe in common, knowing that they all spring from a common source, no matter what route they have taken to the individual. We must remember that all those who seek to do the Lord s will are actually members of the same church, the Lord s Church Universal.

If we think of the Church Universal as appearing as a single person in the sight of the Lord, the Church Specific can be seen as the heart and lungs of that being. (See Arcana Coelestia 2853, Heaven and Hell 308) While the Church Universal is made up of all good people, the Church Specific is made up of those who have been fortunate enough to have the Word, and have learned specific truths about the Lord by means of it. The Church Specific has a better, more interior understanding of doctrine, because its members have more information to work from. Because of their better understanding, those in the Church Specific serve as a means of spiritual influx into the Church Universal, and thus into the whole natural world.

While having the Word is important, it is the understanding of the Word that is most important, for we are told that the Lord is present with every person when he reads the Word, but that the Lord is conjoined with a person according to his understanding of the Word; for as far as he understands, he has truths in his mind.

The Lord can only be conjoined with a person by means of His own things with the person when there is understanding of doctrine. (See Sacred Scripture 78) The Church Specific, as compared to the Church Universal, is where the Word is rightly understood and such as is the understanding of the Word among those who are in the church, such is the church. (See Sacred Scripture 79) The quality of the church is according to the understanding of the doctrine from the Word within it, and for this reason, the New Church has from the very beginning emphasized independent study of doctrine on the part of the laymen, and doctrinal classes in addition to Sunday services have been a regular part of the church week. And because the study and understanding of the doctrine is so important to the life of the New Church, New Church schools have been established and maintained through considerable effort in order that they might provide the necessary foundation to make it easier for those who have trained in this manner to understand and apply the doctrines in their lives.

But we, too, must be cautious lest this emphasis on doctrinal things divert our attention from our real job, which is a life according to this doctrine. A church is a church from doctrine, but a person s religion is according to what he does from his doctrinal knowledge. (Apocalypse Revealed 923) Doctrine is necessary for understanding the Word, but the life according to doctrine is what makes the church with an individual.

The Church Specific is where the Word is, and the Lord is acknowledged. Does this mean that the New Church, or the General Church of the New Jerusalem, or this Society of the Church can honestly claim to be the "Church Specific" ?It would not be wise to make that claim for the organization itself, but we could safely say that there are individuals who are of the Lord s church and who are also members of this earthly organization. But, we must never forget that at best our church organization, and our doctrinal foundation, cannot be more than a representative of the Lord s church as it is in the heavens, although with the effort of all members to improve their understanding of the doctrine by reading the Word for themselves and taking active part in the doctrinal instruction provided by the church, we can hope that its forms will ever improve.

All people who love the Lord are of His church, no matter where they live, or what church they belong to. So far as the Lord s New Church is established in the hearts and minds of people on earth, so far will the earthly form more closely approximate the heavenly order, and the better it will be able to serve the Lord s uses. The church is from the Lord alone, and He must govern it by means of the Word. This is only possible if there are people who are willing to study the Word regularly, thoroughly, seeking true understanding and enlightenment from the Lord. Then the Lord can truly be effectively present with His church, and it will grow and prosper, and fully serve the use of bringing everyone into eternal conjunction with Him in heaven. Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman stays awake in vain (PSA 1271). AMEN.

1st Lesson: 1 Sam 135-14

Then the Philistines gathered together to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen, and people as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude. And they came up and encamped in Michmash, to the east of Beth Aven. {6} When the men of Israel saw that they were in danger (for the people were distressed), then the people hid in caves, in thickets, in rocks, in holes, and in pits. {7} And some of the Hebrews crossed over the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. As for Saul, he was still in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling. {8} Then he waited seven days, according to the time set by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him. {9} So Saul said, "Bring a burnt offering and peace offerings here to me." And he offered the burnt offering. {10} Now it happened, as soon as he had finished presenting the burnt offering, that Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him, that he might greet him. {11} And Samuel said, "What have you done?" And Saul said, "When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered together at Michmash, {12} "then I said, The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the LORD. Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering." {13} And Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you. For now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. {14} "But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you." Amen.

2nd Lesson: Luke 1415-24

Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, "Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!" {16} Then He said to him, "A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, {17} "and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, Come, for all things are now ready. {18} "But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused. {19} "And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused. {20} "Still another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come. {21} "So that servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind. {22} "And the servant said, Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room. {23} "Then the master said to the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. {24} For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper. " Amen.

3rd Lesson AC 2853.

...The Lord s kingdom on earth consists of all those who are endowed with good, who, though spread throughout the whole world, are nevertheless one, and as members constitute one body. The same is so with the Lord s kingdom in the heavens. There the whole of heaven presents itself as one entire human being, which is for that reason also called the Grand Man. & And what is a marvel and unknown until now, all parts of the human body correspond to communities in heaven.&

[3] It is similar with the Lord s Church on earth. Here the Church is like the heart and lungs, and those outside of the Church resemble parts of the body which are sustained by, and get their life from, the heart and lungs. >From this it is evident that without the Church somewhere on earth the human race cannot continue to exist, even as the body cannot without the heart and lungs in it. It is for this reason that as often as any Church reaches its end, that is, ceases to be a Church because no charity exists any more, the Lord in His Providence always raises up a new one. & This was done by Him to the end that heaven might be joined to the human race by means of the Church.